Mining industry body retreats from hardline stance on charities

Australia’s mining industry has stepped back from its hard line on trying to limit the charity sector’s lobbying on energy and climate change issues.

The Minerals Council of Australia says it does not support policies requiring environmental charities to devote most of their resources to on-the-ground remediation, despite previously writing submissions to government calling for it to consider such policies.

Although the new stance seems to contradict earlier statements, the MCA insists there has been no change in its position.

The move comes amid fractures between the MCA’s membership over the tough approach, with BHP recently publicly distancing itself from the MCA’s position on activity requirements for environmental charities.

“They’ve over-reached in bashing-up on civil society, coal and climate and energy issues,” said Rod Campbell from the Australia Institute, who pressured the MCA to clarify its position. “They’ve gone rogue and they’re being pulled back – and that’s a good thing.”

Most recently, in August this year the MCA published its submission to federal Treasury’s inquiry into reform of tax-deductible gift recipients. In the submission, it said Treasury’s proposal to allow environmental charities to only spend 50% of their expenditure on political advocacy was “sound in principle”, but urged Treasury to consider limiting it further to just 10%, writing:

The federal government should consider adopting Canada’s political activity rule for charities, to close the loophole of uncapped tax-deductible political donations through deductible gift recipients. Under Canadian law, charities can spend no more than 10 per cent of their resources (including staff and volunteer time) on political advocacy. Moreover, that advocacy must be nonpartisan and secondary to their charitable purpose.

The push, which had continued for years, was taken up enthusiastically by the Coalition, with a Senate inquiry in 2015 recommending environmental groups devote at least 25% of their expenditure to “environmental remediation work”. (A Minerals Council of Australia submission to that inquiry also suggested that parliament consider lifting that to 90%.)

Similarly, in a report by Liberal members of the joint standing committee on electoral matters, the Liberal members referred directly to the MCA’s position and concluded “that registered environmental organisations are endorsed by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) to receive tax-deductible gifts and contributions, but only for the principal purpose of protecting the natural environment, or undertaking related education or research.”

Other sections of the mining lobby have been even stronger in calling for a strict limit to the advocacy activities of environmental charities. This year, the NSW Minerals Council wrote:

But amid pressure from its shareholders, the MCA’s biggest member, BHP, agreed to reconsider its membership of the lobby group over concerns about the hardline approach the MCA had taken with charities, and on energy policy in Australia.

And then, earlier this month, the Guardian revealed BHP had openly distanced itself from the MCA’s call to restrict advocacy of environmental groups, saying it did not support any such move.

Now, in a letter to Transparency International, the MCA has unequivocally said it does not support the moves it previously appeared to advocate for, writing:

The letter came after Rod Campbell, from the Australia Institute, urged the MCA to clarify whether the activity of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which is an initiative the MCA has been a part of, is political advocacy.

The issue appeared to reveal an inconsistency in the MCA’s position, and opened up a potential confrontation with BHP on the matter. The MCA and BHP had supported charities being involved in the EITI. But if the work they did there was considered “advocacy”, then the MCA’s previous position appeared to make it difficult for those groups to continue the work there.

The Australia Institute, Transparency International and other members of the EITI could then have raised the issue at an upcoming meeting, potentially inflaming an already difficult relationship between the MCA and BHP on the issue.

The wording the MCA used in its written submissions was usually ambiguous, never directly recommending that environmental groups should have their ability to advocate limited, but repeatedly calling for the government to consider it, and describing the idea as “sound”.

David Byers, who is acting as chief executive of the MCA, said there has been no change in the MCA’s position.

“Rather, the MCA’s position is that charities should comply with the Charities Act’s existing provisions requiring them not to promote or oppose political parties and not to engage in unlawful activities,” Byers said.

Campbell says they’re trying to have it both ways.

“Basically, they’re trying to walk both sides of the street. Saying the government “should consider adopting” a limit, but the MCA “does not support” adopting such a limit on advocacy,” Campbell said.

“This enables the MCA to help the hard core of the LNP such as Barnaby Joyce to attack deductible gift-recipient environment groups, but then say they support no such thing to their image-conscious members like BHP and Rio.”

The MCA has also been campaigning for all charities who receive foreign donations not to be allowed to take part in political advocacy during election campaigns. The Coalition has said it will introduce legislation before the end of the year that will do that.